Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rediscovering Discovery: The Daily Digital Curation of Beautiful Signals

The Daily Digital Curation of Beautiful Signals 
Kantian Aesthetics and The Information Highway

The official verdict is out. Surfing the web for relevant content or in the hopes of serendipitous content discovery IS an Aesthetic Experience, period. That is, we are looking for information-objects of beauty. The experience of information serendipity is akin to the sublime in art. I explain.
We are hearing more and more being spoken with regard to relevance, content discovery, and the assuagement of one's information needs. We also hear much on the subject of information noise. What is information noise?

Well, we know what noise is. Currently, our definition of information noise is usually UNWANTED INFORMATION, i.e. unwanted information present in your social stream. So in a sense, YOU are NOISE to me.

Septem artes liberales from "Hortus delic...
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That is to say, there are Twitter users whose posts I don't like reading: They are not beautiful, hence they are information pollution / information noise. We even speak of "cleaning" one's Twitter Feed.So we're speaking of an aesthetic experience, and the way I see it, when we speak of cleaning our social stream, or keeping it tidy, we're really speaking about social standing.

What do I mean by this? What I mean is that we're trying to control what kind of information reaches us, partly by cleaning up what digital channels will NOT reach us. We are choosing kinds of information that we do NOT want to see in our social stream.

In a sense, we are also categorizing PEOPLE in terms of Sound information and Noisy information. We are therefore classifying people as being either Good or Not Good (i.e. Good or not Good FOR ME).
So a different kind of filtering is taking place. We're not just talking about information filtering anymore: We're talking about an aesthetic filtering of PEOPLE, because PEOPLE in the end are attached to these Twitter or Facebook or other accounts.

It's normal to want to control one's "listening station", to get the kinds of information we prefer, and none can doubt that surfing the web for information is a matter of taste. But it becomes an aesthetic problem and a very serious ethical debate arises out of it.

How can I judge a human being as being either informative or as being information noise? I can classify INDIVIDUALS as satisfying my information needs or NOT satisfying my information needs. This is horrible, though, the consequences are terrifying. I can dispose of individuals as though they were garbage, and believe me, the effect is felt. You try being rejected as a POOR SOURCE of information. You will be ignored, rejected, put on the Black List, and you will feel alienated.

So for the most part, this kind of "social filtering" of people is really unethical. We speak of our egalitarian society as righteous and virtuous. Yet we classify and label people as good and not good. Noise, in the digital information channel, is bad. It is UGLY. It is a matter of taste, but when taste labels & judges individuals, it becomes a serious ethical problem of VIOLATION and TRANSGRESSION.

Beham, (Hans) Sebald (1500-1550): Dialectica (...
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Just as a piece of information that satisfies my information need is seen as RELEVANT and BEAUTIFUL, it also transgresses the norm of what is UGLY and NOISY and NOT USEFUL, or NOT INTERESTING. The same goes for the uninteresting, it violates that value we hold so dear, those values indelibly linked to the labelling of our individual experiences of the Information Highway as beautiful, true, and good.

Yes, we are actually seeking the Good, the Beautiful and the True, and are labelling people this way in the process. But an individual is neither good, nor beautiful, nor true, nor is he or she the opposite of this. Humans are just what they are. They can be annoying, but really when one takes offense, one is usually looking to be offensed.

So this, for me, is the final verdict on the experience of surfing the World Wide Web. It is a matter of aesthetics and aesthetic taste, and a seriously unethical matter of FILTERING PEOPLE as objects of knowledge. And so a question arises with regard to the liberal art of Saving-Face: To put it politely, we're looking for social standing, and the judgment of others, as to our aesthetic beauty, goodness, or truth, is profoundly important to us. Services such as Facebook permit us to gauge the responses others have of us, so it works to keep us in check. Like the Liberal Arts in the 17th and 18th century in England, the Liberal Arts serve a public function of promoting the civic virtues. We are doing the same at present: We are using each other to promote civic virtues. Relevance and Utility have become civic virtues, and others can take on the Face-Wasting role of lacking in civility. More to come on the subject of Face-Saving and Face-Wasting (i.e. The Antiface Strategy).

Golden Radio: The Beautiful Signal God

I once liked to think of irrelevant, uninteresting or unwanted information as "noise" in language media / communications media.. But then people started using the term signal-to-noise ratio and I thought the analogy was taken too far. Really if it is information that is impertinent, just call it impertinent. If it has to do with the level of background noise, say level of background noise. I don't like it when metaphors or analogies are used merely to save time. Like instead of explaining the intricacies of the Trinitarian concept of God in Catholic doctrine, you use an analogy like a three-leaved clover.. it can be pretty even cute, but I find such time-saving shortcut metaphors to be awfully "noisy" themselves.. So I try to ignore it.. and when I'm not listening,I fall into silent contemplation again..

See Wikipedia:

"Signal-to-noise ratio (often abbreviated SNR or S/N) is a measure used in science and engineering to quantify how much a signal has been corrupted by noise. It is defined as the ratio of signal power to the noise power corrupting the signal. A ratio higher than 1:1 indicates more signal than noise. While SNR is commonly quoted for electrical signals, it can be applied to any form of signal (such as isotope levels in an ice core or biochemical signaling between cells).
In less technical terms, signal-to-noise ratio compares the level of a desired signal (such as music) to the level of background noise. The higher the ratio, the less obtrusive the background noise is.
"Signal-to-noise ratio" is sometimes used informally to refer to the ratio of useful information to false or irrelevant data in a conversation or exchange. For example, in online discussion forums and other online communities, off-topic posts and spam are regarded as "noise" that interferes with the "signal" of appropriate discussion."

A New Signal

I've been thinking about signals a lot and for a very long time. I've been obsessed with signals since I started playing the electric guitar about twenty years ago. I eventually studied sound design and my love of signals has only grow with time.

So naturally I met the new discourse around signals & noise in information technologies with eagerness and an open heart. Many of us have been following Social Streams now for quite some time, and the discussion over the signal-to-noise ratio is currently raging strong.

The Seven liberal arts. Music and Pythagoras.
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I began thinking about an hour or so ago about different signal types. When I record audio signals, whether it's my voice or my electric guitar, I work with analog signals usually streaming through electronics equipment which I then digitize, ending up with digital signals.

What we are calling Signals in computer-mediated communication is closer to the definition of "market signals", which are a form of Information. At any rate, I've been thinking of these information streams and trying to think of what the next type of signal might be.

Let's face it, we're mostly dealing with a stream of information, mostly in the form of links to media or links to profiles, blogs, various other kinds of dynamic websites, etc. A lot of the time, too, on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, we're still seeing a stream of Status Updates.

Between a stream of equal part links and status updates, I wonder about what new kinds of streaming information might occur in the near future. We have people following the stock market and the kinds of information found therein. A lot of what is streaming we could just call News. Some of it is personal information, information about various "states of affairs".

So I have to ask you, what new kind of signals do you think might appear in the near future? Maybe machine-to-machine signals in the form of what is called electronic negotiation? In other words, your washing machine might negotiate with energy sources to optimize the electrical signal being used by the machine, or the other appliances in the house, negotiating with the price of sources per kilowatt-milliseconds.

Human Information Behavior, Information Noise, and Social Stream Filtering

I've been thinking a great deal about information filtering, particularly social filtering and noise filtering too. In sound design, I'm used to hearing terms like "noise filtering" and the famous "signal-to-noise ratio". In recent times, however, I've seen the term noise used with regard to information overload / information pollution and the term signal-to-noise ratio used with regard to social streams.

In digital signal processing, we can speak of "low-pass filters" or "high-pass filters", which made me think of the "pertinence-pass filter" that could exist for filtering social streams.

I guess you'd have to equate relevance with a given frequency or frequency range.

I've also been thinking of black noise, i.e. Black Noise and Population Persistence, as well as Noise Trading.

So many thoughts, so much to synthesize. I'm thinking of ESS, Survivalism, Evolutionary Learning Algorithms, Negative Filtering (filtering "out", i.e. opting-out what you don't want, Digg's "Bury" button).
I want a system that can learn my information preferences. It would be requisite that information gathered, i.e. the dataset, have appropriate metadata, so that filtering agents could filter through metadata-rich data, through some sort of sorting algorithm, "listening" for my preference / attention profile.

I'm also thinking of bioelectronics and Noise Servers, Noise Modelling, Matching, Signal Purification, Filter Synthesis, and Human Information Behavior (also: Collaborative Information Behavior, i.e. Collaborative Information Seeking. The point is that sound designers need to get together with computer programmers and solve the social stream filtering problem once and for all. Just treat it as noise and use digital signal processing algorithms to "cancel out" or "remove" what is a noise in the "signals". We should also begin treating social streams as signals, because that's what they are.
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